When Keith Haring arrived in New York at the end of the 1970s it was a very different place from what it is today. The decade had been extremely volatile economically and the city was pretty much bankrupt. The millionaires still swanned around Central Park uptown but downtown neighbourhoods like the East Village were derelict , dangerous and undesirable. Cheap rents made it a magnet for the young, the liberal and the artistic, and Keith Haring and his friends ticked al of those boxes:
“All kinds of new things were starting. In music, it was the punk and New Wave scenes. There was a migration of artists from all over America to New York. It was completely wild. And we controlled it ourselves.” - Keith Haring
Turning the club into a gallery
No money and no status meant this creative crowd was shut out of the conventional art circuit of galleries and museums. so they showed their art in alternative spaces, on the streets or in the clubs. Night clubs were pivotal to the scene not only because of the ‘work hard, play harder’ attitude of many of the East Village posse, but because they really became places where young artists showcased and combined their creativity. They DJ’d, danced, performed on stage, formed bands, showed movies, organised art shows and designed sets, flyers and costumes.
“Club 57 […] became our hangout, a clubhouse, where we could do whatever we wanted. We started doing theme parties – beatnik parties that were satires of the Sixties and parties with porno movies and stripteases. We showed early Warhol films.” - Keith Haring
Club 57 was probably the most important venue in the East Village. It was located in the basement of a Polish Church on St Mark’s Place, existed for a mere 5 years and was home to a coterie of close-knit artists. In contrast to the high profile Studio 54, where it was important to see and be seen, and where the extravagant mixed with the rich and famous, you didn’t bump into many celebs at club 57, except if you counted the complete unknowns who would become big stars of the art world later on. Club manager Ann Magnuson reminisced:
“At any given time, the club was a dance hall, a screening room, a watering hole, a theater lab, an art gallery, or a self-styled ‘let it all hang out’ encounter group. Sometimes it was all those things at once.”
Keith Haring performed live poetry at Club 57 with his head stuck in a tv-set. He became their exhibitions manager, which meant he mounted exhibitions of his own work and curated shows with work from friends and other artists. Two of these exhibitions perfectly encapsulate the place and the era: the Xerox Art Show and the Erotic Art Show, both in 1980. This was no-budget DIY art with a punk attitude and aesthetic, and the club provided a place for sexual as well as artistic experimentation and liberation. The atmosphere at Club 57 was one of stylistic anarchy, improvisation and hedonism.
Haring was thrilled with the graffiti that covered the city. He worked alongside graffiti artists and loved doing public projects outside. He turned the New York subway into a gallery for his art by filling empty ad spaces with his drawings, which made him into something of a media celebrity. He also brought graffiti inside, specifically with an exhibition he organised at the Mudd Club in April 1981. The show, called Beyond Words, was curated at Haring’s request by graffiti artist Futura 2000 and rapper Fab 5 Freddy, who later said that:
“The point of the show was to make people realize that graffiti went beyond words – that graffiti artists were also trying to develop as painters.”
The Mudd Club was situated on White Street in lower Manhattan and shared some of its regular performers with Club 57, like the B-52s or Klaus Nomi. It had a gender neutral bathroom and an art gallery on the fourth floor, curated by Haring. In July 1979 People Magazine wrote
"New York’s fly-by-night crowd of punks, posers and the ultra-hip has discovered new turf on which to flaunt its manic chic. It is the Mudd Club.... For sheer kinkiness, there has been nothing like it since the cabaret scene in 1920s Berlin."
Turning the gallery into a club
In 1982 Haring joined a ‘real’ gallery. He had previously worked as an assistant to the Soho gallerist Tony Shafrazi, and now he joined the gallery as an artist. His first solo show included his very first works on tarpaulin and collaborations with graffiti artist LAII. His second show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery would become legendary. Still resistant to the idea of occupying a traditional art space, Haring transformed the basement of the gallery into a club environment. He presented his fluorescent Day-Glo paintings and objects under UV light and heightened the club experience with hip-hop and disco music played by his boyfriend Juan Dubose, who acted as DJ in the gallery.
Haring’s favourite club was the Paradise Garage. Located on King Street, ‘the garage’ was more welcoming to blacks, latinos and gays than other clubs. It most distinctive feature however was that it placed the music and the DJ literally centre stage. The club boasted the most impressive sound system in the city, and the volume level made conversation pretty impossible. This meant you basically had to shut up dance – turning the club into a sort of anti-Studio 54. Haring adored it. It became a pivotal place in the history of dance music, giving its name to ‘garage house’ music.
The Paradise Garage was also where Haring organised his own birthday parties in the mid-1980s, called ‘Party of Life’. These parties became the highlight of the downtown scene. Madonna, on the verge of international stardom, was part of the entertainment in 1984. She performed Dress You Up in a striking outfit designed by Haring himself.
All about the music
Keith Haring loved music. He danced through the night at clubs, attended concerts and designed record sleeves. Music was also his constant companion in the creation of his art. Lovers and friends supplied him with an endless stream of mix tapes. When he did his public projects he would play loud music, turning his painting in performances with a bloc party vibe, which often drew large crowds. He never believed in the separation of art disciplines, and collaborated with DJ’s, rappers, dancers and musicians, linking his art forever to hip-hop and dance music, the emerging music scenes of his decade.